Humans are a storytelling species. Even when we are not sharing stories with others, we’re full of internal narratives or “self-talk” by which we make sense of what’s going on around us. Sometimes we may talk out loud to ourselves; but more often, although we are silent, a constant dialogue goes on in our thoughts, describing our perceptions and sorting our thoughts into recognizable categories. We draw these categories in large part from the narratives our culture has taught us, often on a subconscious level. They may not always be accurate or to our benefit.

As a result, we’re likely to stress ourselves out unnecessarily by framing our experiences in terms of the popular complaints of our society. One of the most common ways this happens is in what we tell ourselves about time. The modern world is busier and more complicated than ever before. We have vastly more choices in our daily lives. This gives rise to free-floating anxieties that we can’t easily describe, and we end up expressing them in terms of not having control over our time:

“I’m too busy. There is too much going on. I don’t have time to get anything done.”

Our friends and family members are likely to respond—again, in a socially scripted way—by suggesting that we have too many obligations on our busy calendars and need to simplify our lives. While that’s not bad advice in itself, what often happens when we allow ourselves a few quiet, unhurried moments is that another cultural script promptly kicks in:

“I’m bored. There is nothing going on. I need to find something to do with my time.”

And round and round we go.

Time is, of course, neutral; it passes at the same rate regardless of what we happen to be doing. Our perceptions of time, however, are constantly changing in relation to our environment. For most of our history, people’s lives consisted of simple but time-consuming tasks such as hunting, gathering, and domestic chores. It would never have occurred to anyone to complain of boredom because there was always more work to be done. And because the work had a regular and predictable structure, with little room for individual choice, there was no reason to feel anxious about how one’s schedule was managed.

Nowadays, with all the options created by modern technology and our interconnected world, we have a multitude of scenarios playing out in our minds at all times as part of our internal dialogue; and we haven’t yet learned how to deal with it. There are so many choices that it has become overwhelming.

Last week a bird flew into my garage and couldn’t understand how to get back outside again. Even with both of the garage doors open and sunlight streaming in through the doors, the bird was so confused by the unfamiliar environment that it just fluttered around aimlessly. My husband tried yelling at the bird and waving a broom at it to chase it away, but that didn’t help at all—the bird only got more anxious and befuddled, while still not finding its way out. At last my husband hit on the idea of closing one of the garage doors. With only one possible exit, the bird promptly oriented itself and flew out.

Although humans (usually) have more sense than birds, I believe that we have a similar need for clear landmarks to guide us when we navigate our surroundings. In the context of time management and choosing among multiple alternatives, humans create such landmarks by developing routines and rituals. Those of us with an introverted temperament put more effort into organizing our homes and work spaces in predictable ways. Extroverts focus instead on social rituals, such as sports, shopping, and Friday night at the club. But the underlying motivation is the same—finding something that makes sense in a chaotic environment.

We need a new set of stories to explain our relationship with time. What can we tell ourselves about our ability to control and manage the choices available to us? How can we feel comfortable without always having to be in constant motion from one activity to another? Where can we find examples of how to live productively while looking upon time as an abundant resource?

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